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YEH HAI YOUNGISTAN MERI JAAN Vardan Kabra (PGP 2004), Fountainhead School

Vardan led a nomadic life as a child. His father works with the C K Birla group, and it is a transferable job. This meant living in 10 different places (including Nigeria), studying in nine schools and making friends with people from all over India.

As a child Vardan aspired to join the army. But later he went the JEE way, and joined IIT Bombay where he did both his BTech and MTech. In his 3rd year at IIT, Vardan was the Overall Coordinator of Techfest the biggest technology festival in India. Around this time (1999-2000), three seniors at IIT started what was probably the first dotcom of India. I was quite envious of them - and at that point I decided that I too would something on my own - that to me was far more glamorous than a hi-fi job.

In fact right after IIT, Vardan tried to start something called a Detonation Spray Coating unit (being a metallurgical & material science engineer). He could not go ahead with the project because of lack of capital and no clue about how to actually run a business. So he decided to do an MBA and joined IIMA.

During the first year I did get into the rat race for a little while - but soon I realized what I really wanted. The two month internship at P&G in Mumbai made me sure that a job is not for me. I am too lazy to work well under a boss, he adds with a grin. In the second year, Vardan took LEM (Laboratory in Entrepreneurial Motivation taken by Sunil Handa). It was a major factor in keeping the motivation going - and more importantly for showing a direction as to how actually to go about doing things. External factors who tried to dissuade included my parents, relatives, some friends (not too many though as most knew me quite well not to argue with me).

In his second year at IIMA Vardan visited Eklavya School in Ahmedabad and realised that he too wanted to start a school. It was time to start exploring options. We formed a team of 11 people with interest in entrepreneurship - then we started working on various ideas. We formed sub-teams with interests in specific areas - education being one of them. Then our team started working on schools. Four of us visited schools across India (Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat, Mumbai, Delhi). The idea was to get some good points from all the places and understand what's missing.

The team disbanded after graduating with everyone taking up jobs except for one other person, who decided to get into a venture other than education. Vardan shifted to Surat, a city which lacks good schools but where there is growing demand for quality education. And paying capacity is not an issue. However the first six months were a major low period. I had no clue as to what I was doing and where I was heading. In this period he briefly considered setting up a bookshop but then dropped the idea. In the end, Vardan realised that the first step for someone with no money has to be to start off with a preschool and then grow into a full fledged school.

Take the baby steps and you will eventually learn how to run the full marathon! Luckily he was not alone. Batchmate Ankita Diwekar was attracted towards the school project while at IIMA and was quite serious - but she was unsure whether leaving a job and getting started straightaway was the answer or not. So she took up a placement with P&G.

But even while she was on the job she was still helping me out all the time. She visited Surat 2-3 times and then once we knew that we were getting married, Fountainhead Preschool also took off and she joined full-time two months before marriage.

Funded by Ankita and Vardan's family, as well as Sunil Handa, the initial investment was about Rs 13 lakhs. Fountainhead Preschool started with six kids in April 2005. The 50th child joined nine months later and by January 2007 that number stood at 140+. Even as enrolments were growing (purely on word of mouth) Fountainhead was also becoming known as a 'brand' of high quality meaningful education in Surat.

While Ankita was fully involved in managing the preschool, in January 2007 Vardan also started a training centre called Life Skills for students and working professionals. Life Skills imparts short-term, job-oriented courses and was set up in partnership with two local businessman. The plan being to set up the centre Education, as a business model is feasible, no doubt about it. Except for the capital expenditure which makes life very difficult. For a preschool there's no problem and get it going over the next one year after which Vardan was clear he would head back to schooling full time.

But the concept has relevance even there. What's needed is for schools to teach Life Skills - so that kids can be independent, thinking, empathetic, enterprising individuals. People are starting to recognise that marks alone do not mean education and nor do they mean success in life, says Vardan. Still, changing the mindsets of parents and teachers does take time. The other major hurdle Fountainhead faced was land. You need at least 4-5 acres to set up a good school and how can one afford to buy land at today's exorbitant rates? When Fountainhead applied for

government land in Surat in January 2005 everyone said it would take a maximum of 18 months, but even two years on, there was no sanction. Plus, there was no clarity on the concessions being offered over the market rate.

So Vardan also started talking to some private players as it was a Rs 4-5 crore project. Getting funds for land and infrastructure has been our biggest hurdle. The reason is that education is supposed to be a non-profit activity. Hence, you can't attract money in the way you would for a regular company - by making a sensible business plan. Of course everyone knows schools do make money but it is a fact never advertised.

Even as a preschool Fountainhead was able to charge annual fees of Rs 21,600 (all inclusive). The scope for higher classes would, of course, be more. At the same time, 8-9 kids at the preschool have been subsidized; children of maids, clerks & workers kids are paying Rs 100-200 per month, he adds. Wages and salaries form 40-45% of the total cost of running a school and even then, finding good teachers is an issue. Eklavya School has provided non-financial support such as curriculum design, teacher training, processes, legal help and so on, making life a little easier.

But it's been a steep learning curve. All the hard work is now bearing fruit as Fountainhead starts its first full fledged school from June 2008. In partnership with a local businessman, the school is coming up on a 10 acre campus and will admit approximately 200 students from nursery up to class 5. The preschool will also continue to function from rented premises for the time being. The infrastructure is of very high quality, says Vardan with pride. We are going in for the International Baccalaureate's Primary Years Programme (the affiliation is a 3.5 year process which started six months ago). Adds Ankita, We are very excited with the program as we believe it has all the right elements and emphasis as far as education is concerned and their philosophy strongly matches ours.

The aim is to make this a model school in the next 4-5 years and then expand rapidly in the schooling segment. In the preschooling segment, Fountainhead is looking to start another branch by November 2008. If the experiment goes well then the stage will be set to expand into more full-fledged schools.

More schools mean more teachers. Fountainhead's total staff will cross 75 this year and to keep them up-to-date the school arranged for a 9 week training program through the summer vacation. This included self-development exercises, field trips, educational videos and of course everything about PYP.

It has taken four years but the vision of a school is now a concrete reality. We have our fair share of crises and issues, but we are very satisfied with what we are doing. Of course there's so much yet to be done!

On a reflective note, Vardan adds, Because I got media coverage at the very beginning, I thought that my dreams would come true immediately. That did not happen - it takes times for big dreams to materialize. So basically more down to the earth thinking would have been better. Maybe. But you have to start with your head in the clouds. That's what gives you the courage to take the foolish decision instead of the safe one!

And you can think all you want, but life has its own flow. And you just go with it. In the midst of giving birth to Fountainhead School, Ankita and Vardan also became proud parents. Baby Sunay was not really planned and his arrival changed life in many ways. Says Vardan, Sunay's arrival has changed the way we work rather how Ankita works - I am being more of a typical father than I thought I would be). Ankita has a lot of stress as a result of being a mother as well as the key person for the school.

For example, Ankita was working till the second last day before delivery and she returned to working for 5-6 hours just 40 days after her delivery. We actually had a dip in quality while Ankita was away but she was committed enough to come back and ensure that work did not suffer.

There is really no correct time to have a baby, because there is always something more to achieve as far as work goes. But work is not everything - that's why babies come into this world. And there is no correct time to start a company, because there is always some risk involved. But security is not everything - that's why books like this are written. To drive that point home.

Answer these questions in your UOI notebook:

1. What do you understand by the terms and Enterprise 1a.v2. Why did Vardan Kabra opt to be an entrepreneur? 2a.v-Because Vardan Kabra wanted to do something on his own that to was far more glarous than a hi-fi job 3. What were the factors needed to start his business? 3a.v-Money-Capital,Motivation,Showing a direction to how actually to go about doing things 4. How did he develop the skills needed to run the business? 4a.v-They formed a team of 11 people with interest in entrepreneurship - then they started working on various ideas. They formed sub-teams with interests in specific areas - education being one of them. Then their team started working on schools. Four of them visited schools across India (Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat, Mumbai, Delhi). The idea was to get some good points from all the places and understand what's missing 5. What were the challenges faced by him? 5a.v-Lack of money & no clue how to actually run a business. External factors who tried to dissuade included his parents, relatives, some friends (not too many though as most knew me quite well not to argue with me). 6. What LPs and attitudes does portray as an entrepreneur? 6a.v- Confidence, Risk taker, Thinker, Knowledgable